In a recent compelling commentary in the New York Times, Ezra Klein described the dangers when politics becomes "an aesthetic" or "performative."
Under performance politics, removing disfavored names from buildings becomes more important than closing the achievement gap. Voters reward big promises on affordable housing as the problem only worsens. Meanwhile, the foundations of good government needed to deliver on progressive policies — transparency, accountability, efficiency — continue to wither.
Sadly the cancer of performative politics — to be clear, a disease even more advanced on the right — has reached a crisis level in Minneapolis. Most observers will frame the November 2021 Minneapolis elections as a referendum on the "far left" or "progressives." This would be a mistake.
Quoting from Ibram Kendi's book "How to be an Anti-Racist," Klein stresses that it is the fundamental outcome not the consciousness or good intent of the policymaker that matters. The truth is that actual outcomes in Minneapolis too often have not been progressive. Nonetheless, voters continue to reward performers not reformers.
No issue demonstrates the folly of politics as performance art more starkly than the reckless call to abolish and defund the Minneapolis Police Department. While no productive outcome-based conversation has occurred in Minneapolis since the death of George Floyd, St. Paul has engaged the Citizens' League and a dynamic group of citizens to propose practical responses. Meanwhile, the authors of the charter change to abolish the MPD failed to meet basic timelines in submitting their proposal to the Charter Commission in 2020.
The notion floated by many policymakers that the police culture in Minneapolis is irredeemably toxic and incapable of change is offensive to me personally and professionally. I have worked with law enforcement as an elected official and as a prosecutor throughout my career. Like most of us, law enforcement officers enter into their profession for the right reasons — in their case, to protect and to serve. More than perhaps any other profession, however, law enforcement officers are undermined when those with the power to hold wrongdoers accountable fail to do their job.
The truth is that the elected officials in Minneapolis have failed to produce and require an effective disciplinary program in the MPD. This is not because of limitations on their authority in the city charter. It is not primarily because of the arbitration system. To the extent it is the union contract, these are contracts the council ultimately approves.
This is the very dangerous "big lie" behind the charter proposal:
A few days after the death of George Floyd, the City Council banned the use of chokeholds. Use-of-force reports subsequently confirmed that similar chokeholds had been used 43 other times. We still don't know what, if any, discipline resulted in any of those prior cases. We do know that a decade earlier the city settled a wrongful death case involving a chokehold and did nothing to end the practice. We now know from court filings that there were three prior excessive force complaints against Derek Chauvin for using chokeholds and that no discipline was imposed.
We know that in 2015 the Department of Justice completed an audit of the city's disciplinary system and made many recommendations for improvement. There was little City Council discussion of these recommendations and few, if any, were implemented. We also know that Judge Kathryn Quaintance sent a letter to the mayor and City Council after the guilty verdict in the Mohamed Noor case asking a number of questions raised by the jurors about police training and procedure. She received no response.
It is disheartening to see organizations I have long admired thoughtlessly jump on board this senseless charter change. It is frightening to consider the massive funding from out-of-state advocacy groups to support a public relations effort for the amendment. The charter amendment will have the intoxicating allure of an easy fix — and perhaps will make us progressives feel good about ourselves.
There is a much-needed fix to the city charter — one that will reform the governance of the city, how it makes decisions and how effectively those decisions can be implemented. The Charter Commission is on the right track. The right kind of charter change can facilitate reform throughout the city — especially the MPD.
Under any system of government, however, there is no substitute for a collective commitment to problem solving and an openness to good ideas wherever they may originate.
There are no simple solutions to complex problems. In Kendi's words, the "symbols of progressivism" cannot substitute for "the sacrifices and risks" that progressive ideals demand. It is time for people of goodwill, progressives of goodwill, to demand better. It is time to demand outcomes and a specific program to achieve them.
Isn't that what elections are for?
Paul Ostrow was a member of the Minneapolis City Council, 1998-2009.